The renewed outburst of large-scale violence in Ukraine has propelled the conflict to the headlines once again. These events should come as no surprise. Even before the recent flaring up of hostilities, the Minsk ceasefire was extremely precarious, with over 1,300 deadly victims between September and January. Yet as late as 10 January, Merkel refused to hold any new peace summit before ‘progress’ had been made. One would almost get a sense that European leaders are reluctant to truly commit to ending the bloodshed.
The German chancellor and François Hollande seem to have overcome their foot-dragging last week by paying a visit both to Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin. The four leaders agreed to hold a new peace summit in Minsk on Wednesday. That it took another round of casualties to try and get all parties to the table is all the more unfortunate since the contours of a possible agreement have been clear for a long time and mainly encompass recognising the status quo.
First, Ukraine should remain outside NATO. Arguments stressing Ukraine’s right to self-determination miss a simple but crucial point: that it is not Ukraine, but NATO members who are to decide, and that they should base their decisions on the basis of their interests (in the first place, the pursuit of peace and security), not on the whims of others. Yet Ukraine’s Atlantic aspirations cannot but contribute to existing divisions, be it between Russia and the West, within NATO, or within Ukrainian society itself.
It is unclear why we should be so passionate about this issue. Finland shows that NATO membership is not a precondition for becoming a prosperous and Western country. Precisely for the reasons just mentioned, moreover, NATO decided in 2008 to block eastward expansion, while leaders of several European countries, including France and Germany, have recently reiterated the undesirability of Ukraine joining the alliance. Indeed, a Ukraine in NATO would unnecessarily alienate Russia while undermining the goals of the alliance, namely peace and security.
Second, the annexation of Crimea should be accepted at least implicitly. It is absurd and irresponsible to sacrifice Ukraine’s future on the altar of abstract principles. Ukraine will have to come to terms with the irreversibility of Crimea’s annexation, while a free and fair referendum may have yielded similar results anyway – probably the reason why this possibility was never seriously mooted by the West. Moreover, few non-Western states are still prepared to be lectured on international law by Europeans and Americans. Russia certainly isn’t one of them.
Third, the future status of Ukraine’s eastern regions needs to be discussed. Although the federalization of Ukraine now seems unrealistic – the West unfortunately refused to seize the opportunity when it presented itself – other options are thinkable. Some, for instance, have suggested autonomy comparable to Iraqi Kurdistan.
It is encouraging to see that Hollande and Merkel appear to have grasped these points in their latest round of talks: together with a joint EU-Russia relief and reform plan for Ukraine, they constitute the cornerstone of any serious attempt at creating peace and stability.
Providing Ukraine with lethal military assistance, however, would jeopardize these efforts. The issue has already become another bone of contention, with senator John McCain describing as ‘foolishness’ Merkel’s doubts that arming Kiev will do any good, while Hollande and several of Barack Obama’s closest advisers ruled out a military solution to the crisis. It is telling of the profound disagreement that a recent report advocating the supply of weapons to Ukraine written by eight former senior US officials was criticised by a friend and associate of the authors.
How more weapons will achieve anything besides reinforcing the spiral of violence is a mystery. It is naive and dangerous to think that violence can be a solution to the conflict – even though this appears precisely to have been the tacit assumption of Western diplomats up until August, when the Ukrainian army was repeatedly routed. Most importantly, any step in this direction will only further complicate the critical task of finding a political solution.
Certainly we can do without warmongers such as former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who boasted that Ukraine could ‘capture all of Russia’ if sufficiently equipped. (The fact that he led his country, including a US-trained and armed army, to a disastrous five-day war with Russia is evidently of no pedagogical value to him.) In order to face the current challenges and those ahead, Ukraine needs less bellicose friends, not more. This is where the EU should step in.
Perhaps the EU’s apathy has to do with wounded pride and the feeling of running behind the facts in its own neighborhood – feelings with which Russia can surely sympathise in the light of the past quarter century, but which both parties must learn to separate from diplomacy and crisis management. The EU was created to overcome animosity between European countries. If it has a historic mission at all, this is it, not the diffusion of ‘European’ values that mainly seems to fuel conflict and misunderstanding.
As the death toll continues to rise – the last count was over 5,300 – it has become a commonplace to argue that the Ukraine crisis is yet another sign of Europe’s weakness. It is also, however, an opportunity to make Europe the geopolitical player it wants to be and transcend the trauma of Yugoslavia. For that to happen, our leaders must take their responsibility, prove that the EU can solve problems, and show the necessary leadership at a decisive moment.
Camille-Renaud Merlen, PhD Candidate
University of Kent, Canterbury
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Europe Centre or the University of Kent.